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Makoto Shinkai Blu-Ray Retrospective: The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 5 Centimeters Per Second & Children Who Chase Lost Voices

Trevor Hogg gets to reflect on the early works of Makoto Shinkai with new Blu-ray editions released by GKIDS and Shout! Factory… 

When GKIDS in a partnership with Shout! Factory announced new Blu-ray editions of The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 5 Centimeters Per Second and Children Who Chase Lost Voices as well the additions of shorts She and Her Cat and Voices of a Distant Star as bonus material, I could not pass up the opportunity to watch the growth of Makoto Shinkai as a filmmaker and to see the cinematic stepping stones that led to him to create blockbusters Your Name and Weathering With You.  Similarities in themes are prevalent in particular the emotional and physical distances between people as well as visual motifs consisting of staircases, passenger trains, and lens flares.  What is varied are the animation styles with 5 Centimeters Per Second resembling more the leaner character designs with the photorealistic backgrounds and atmospherics found in Your Name and Weathering With You.

She and Her Cat and Voices of a Distant Star which are included with 5 Centimeters Per Second are the shorts where Makoto Shinkai was a one-man production crew with the exception of the music provided by long-time collaborator Tenmon.   The black and white She and Her Cat is an amalgamation of hand-drawn illustrations and 3D scenes created through Adobe After Effects.  The fantasy element is not so much in the imagery but the premise where a male cat narrates about the life of his female owner whose face is never completely revealed.  The owner and the backgrounds are done in more realistic manner while the cat itself is a simplified cartoon representation of the animal.  The five-minute story showcases a relationship that is able to withstand the trials and tribulations of the outside world.

Fantasy drives the narrative of Voices of a Distant Star as human soldiers in mech robots battle a hostile alien race across the universe.  The animation for the characters and backdrops is a rougher stylization and the colour palette is brighter.  What comes out of left field is what appears to be a Transformer which is such an overt fantasy element that it clashes with the more grounded approach in subsequent efforts of Shinkai outside of Children Who Chase Lost Voices.  It is funny to see in this high-tech world texting using flip phones though granted the iPhone did not debut until five years later in 2007.  The story literally evolves around childhood friends with one of them going off to join the military and participating in missions that keep taking place further and further in the universe which causes their communications to take years to reach one another.  The concept originated when Shinkai drew a girl holding a mobile phone in a cockpit and combined that with his frequent habit of sending text messages while working.  This is the project that caused him to quit his job as a video game animator and to pursue a career as a filmmaker.

Science fiction overtakes fantasy for The Place Promised in the Early Days with a character explaining to another that she explores the dreams of parallel worlds, in which he responds that it is a rather romantic notion.  And it is.  The animation is a step up from Voices of a Distant Star as there is a nature flow to the motion.   The pivotal moment that has to two childhood friends finally coming together with a lens flare dividing the frame in half is in essence the predecessor to the climax of Your Name.   The other similarity between the films is having the male and female protagonists navigate through metaphysical obstacles to be with each other.  Intriguing designs are the self-made aircraft especially when its in flight and the mysterious tower that for the majority of the story is depicted as a thin white line reaching up into the upper atmosphere.   Even though this is the feature film debut for Shinkai, it feels more like a series of shorts assembled together than one continuous narrative.  There is tonal range that goes from a failed dock rescue that results in some shenanigans to a dramatic flight to the tower that brings everything to a conclusion.

For many, 5 Centimeters Per Second is when Shinkai developed a sleek and polished animation style for both the characters and backgrounds.  It is an undeniable that the train ride that goes from rain to a blizzard and concludes with a rendezvous at a snowed in station will have you feeling the cold in your bones.  You can also enjoy the thrill of surfing the waves.  The feature is in essence three shorts with the male protagonist serving as the narrative bridge between them.  A series of personal letters being read are key part of the narrative as they give voice to the bond between two children friends despite having to move away from each other.  There are no fantasy elements just the melancholy that goes along with the passage of time and the collecting of personal regrets.  The overall theme is more to do the emotional distance between the people and the inability to break that gap.  The train plays a central visual motif as well as cherry blossoms which are responsible for the title of the movie as it refers to how fast the leaves fall off of the branches.

If there is a direct comparison to Studio Ghibili it would be Children Who Chase Lost Voices, which Shinkai admits was inspired in part by the famous anime studio responsible for Castle in the Sky.  A favourite theme for Hayao Miyazaki is the codependent relationship between humans and nature that when abused leads to catastrophic events.  In this case, Shinkai explores a world beneath the Earth where the dead can be resurrected and the tragedies that resulted when humanity discovered its existence.  Even the animation style resembles something out of film catalogue of Studio Ghibli rather than something conceived by Shinkai.  The female protagonist is always running towards something and is proactive in her destiny.  A prominent visual motif is water being treated as a amniotic fluid, in particular for a climatic moment where a transformation takes place.  A clever scene involves the main character getting eaten by a creature that then provides her with a safe passage down a cliff face.  A significant difference is that the story has a continuous narrative rather than being episodic in nature.  There is a melancholy to proceedings but overriding it all is a hopefulness that the human spirit will prevail.

As for the bonus materials all of the Blu-rays come with Japanese and English DTS audio along with interviews with voice cast members and Makoto Shinkai.  The Place Promised in Our Early Days has the least of the offerings, 5 Centimeters Per Second includes shorts Voices of a Distant Star and She and Her Cat as well as a feature length storyboard, and Children Who Chase Lost Voices has a making of documentary and commentary track with Shinkai and the film crew.  Some interesting discoveries was the extent of location scouting and seeing the comparisons between the real place and its anime representation, that a drawing of a girl in cockpit with a mobile phone was the inspiration for Voices of a Distant Star, and getting to watch the dubbing sessions with the Japanese voice cast. Overall, the three features and two shorts provide intriguing insight into where Shinkai has come from creatively as an artist and where he might go with future projects.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada; he can be found at LinkedIn.

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